The sky’s the limit
Anybody out there thinking that The Aviator might be nothing more than a whitewashed depiction of Howard Hughes’ more glamorous years would be seriously underestimating its director, Martin Scorsese. Yes, the film examines a time of Hughes’ life when movie starlets were on his arms and his new jet designs were taking to the air, but it doesn’t shy away from the uglier stuff. Hughes died an insane germaphobe, holed up in a room he didn’t leave for years, and Scorsese takes plenty of time to show the seeds of that descent into madness.
Scorsese has been turning out some of the best movies ever made for nearly 40 years now, and The Aviator is just another chapter in this incredible history. The film is his most ambitious and successful product since Goodfellas. It would seem that nothing could keep him from taking home that elusive, well deserved Oscar. Then again, critics have been saying that every time he’s been nominated since Kevin Costner stole his Goodfellas Oscar for that dopey buffalo movie.
As Howard Hughes in his 20s through early 40s, Leonardo DiCaprio provides yet another reason for his detractors to shut the hell up. Looking a little like Hughes—he’s got the forehead for it—DiCaprio manages to convey the genius of the innovator, as well as all of the insecurities and phobias that brought him down.
There are equal parts fearlessness and vulnerability in DiCaprio’s characterization of a courageous man who took to the skies and changed air travel yet was terrified to touch a doorknob when leaving the bathroom. DiCaprio depicts Hughes flawlessly. His performance should garner him an Oscar nomination.
Scorsese starts the story with Hughes directing and producing Hell’s Angels (1930), the most expensive film of its time and the first of many obsessions The Aviator will depict. Hughes is sort of a reluctant Los Angeles jetsetter, making time with the likes of Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and eventually having a relationship with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). After Hell’s Angels, Hughes’ obsession with flying takes over as he buys an airline, designs and test flies his own aircraft, and occasionally crashes in fields and neighborhoods. The depiction of a plane crash in Beverly Hills is vintage Scorsese.
Blanchett’s excellent performance is a little hard to handle at first. Initially, her characterization seems more fit for a Saturday Night Live skit than a Scorsese movie. Truth is Hepburn was probably as quirky as this portrayal. Hughes and Hepburn’s first verbal sparring, which takes place on a golf course, feels like a Hepburn screwball comedy with Cary Grant. As their relationship becomes more personal, so does Blanchett’s performance. In supporting roles, Alec Baldwin, John C. Reilly and Kate Beckinsale all shine.
While the movie doesn’t make it all the way to Hughes’ long-hair-and-fingernails phase, it does reach the man’s early 40s, when his obsessive-compulsive disorder was beginning to get the best of him. A sequence with him holed up in a hotel room, storing containers of his own urine and talking to himself, is quite the indicator of his plunge into madness. A brief respite from the room, when he testifies before a congressional hearing and flies the famed Spruce Goose for a few seconds, is followed by an ominous hint at the man’s sadness to come.
This is 2004’s best movie and should result in Oscars for both Scorsese and DiCaprio. My feeling is that Scorsese will get his, but DiCaprio will be shunned in favor of Jamie Foxx for Ray. Still, Titanic boy has proven that This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape were no flukes; The Aviator is the highlight, so far, of a promising career.